The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a play retelling a fictionalized version of the famous story of the Salem witch trials. It explores the behavior of the participants and draws parallels with the phenomenon of McCarthyism which was contemporary to the author.
The play tells an altered story of the Salem witch trials which is true to the spirit of the historical events. The conflict between Abigail Williams and John Proctor is at the center of the plot. Abigail detests Proctor for abandoning her and at the same time desires him. After she gets the power to influence the judges, she tries to win him over, but the plan ends in disaster after one of the girls accuses Proctor of witchcraft. Abigail runs away, and Proctor chooses to die rather than produce a false confession. The play explores the themes of intolerance and hysteria. The community of Salem does not accept any deviations. And the greatest sin for any puritan is communion with the devil. Just the accusations make neighbors and friends question each other. That distrust incites hysteria – the second theme of the play. Hysteria dominates the tone of The Crucible. People forget all sense of community and understanding. They are so riled up and frightened they are ready to believe everything Abigail and her girls tell them. And with no need for evidence, the prison of Salem is quick to fill up.
The phrase which perfectly summarizes all that has happened in Salem is uttered by judge Danforth in Act III: “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between” (Miller 114). There were no gray tones in the worldview of the Puritans. And the ending shows how such a simplified approach can lead to horrible loss and sacrifices. The accused stood before the choice: either they falsely confess and are shunned for the rest of their lives, or they go to the gallows. No matter what they do, innocent people become victims of paranoia.
When Arthur Miller wrote this play, he connected the Salem trials with the new brand of hysteria called McCarthyism. Just as Abigail Williams was abusing the fear of witchcraft and Satanism, Senator McCarthy was abusing the fear of the Soviets and communism. Just like Danforth, he would accept no compromise. To him, you were either an American patriot or a red collaborator. The hysteria spread through the USA just as it has once spread through Salem. Discriminatory lawsuits were soon to follow. Anybody suspected of communist sympathies faced prosecution. Thus the Miller’s play reflects not only the horror and injustice of the witch trials but also the state of the American justice system in the early 1950s. The play demonstrates the destructive effects of paranoia on society and shows how easy it is to manipulate people who are afraid. It argues against black and white morals and intolerance. All of these notions are hard not to agree with.
The Crucible covers the misguided trials of colonial America and compares them to the situation contemporary to the author. The play brilliantly demonstrates the importance of rationality and reason. It would also be interesting to discuss the reasoning and disposition of the characters in the play since it is rather complex and does not correspond with the black and white views they tend to exhibit.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible, London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.